Tag Archives: The Man Who Played Trains

True Tale – INVISIBLE WIRE

‘Possible housebreaking, top end of Long Cross. CID on the way but delayed. Can you attend?’

I noted the details, replaced the radio handset and kick-started my motorbike. The house wasn’t that far away, I could be there in less than five minutes. A quiet approach was needed, no point letting an intruder know you are on your way (not that we had blue lights or nee-naw horns on our bikes back then. The road traffic department superintendent believed that his officers’ riding and driving skills should be so good that they didn’t need such things). I approached the house, switched off the engine, coasted down the hill and put the bike on its stand.

It doesn’t take detective training to know that on busy streets like this one, burglars tend to break into the backs of houses rather than the fronts. This house was semi-detached, so instead of going to the front door I walked down the path at the side. All windows, and the front and back doors, were closed. There was no sign of a break-in. By the time I’d returned to the front of the house, the lady who’d phoned us was there, standing in the doorway. “More things have gone missing,” she said. “It’s just like last time.”

The more questions I asked, the more I realised that there was no evidence of anyone else having been in the house. The lady lived on her own and had mislaid things. Unable to find them, her only explanation was that someone had broken in and stolen them. I checked with neighbours. They confirmed that though she was generally a level-headed person, she was very forgetful.

I did my best to console her but she remained unconvinced. Then CID arrived, an experienced officer twice my age. He had been there before, he said, several times. Like me, he was convinced there was no break-in. When the losses mounted up she phoned-in, convinced she’d been burgled.

“Help me,” he said. “We’ll wire the place up…”

The only way to describe what happened next is to say that we mimed unreeling rolls of wire and tucking it behind the sitting room picture rails – that room and the kitchen only, because these were the rooms where things tended to go missing. My colleague convinced her that we were trying out a new device that would call the police if a stranger entered her house. It was invisible so the intruder wouldn’t see it. When we had finished wiring the rooms she insisted that we also did her downstairs windows and doors. I felt bad about it. I didn’t like deceiving people.

It was around a year later when the duty inspector called me into his office. He looked puzzled. It was in the days before computer records and he’d been looking through old journals. ‘Last November,’ he said. ‘You attended a break-in at Long Cross. Would you care to tell me about it?’ Being able to read text from all angles is an asset that I probably learned during my time with the police. I could see that this particular bit of writing, an entry in a daybook, had my name against it. He also had a handwritten letter, addressed to the force’s Chief Constable. He read part of it out to me. It went something like this.

“… the man has not been back to the house since your officer came. I am sure there will be no more burglaries so I no longer need your invisible wire. Please will you send the officer to take it down so it can be used again somewhere else.”

“Invisible wire?” he said. “Care to explain?” I explained as best as I could, wondering if there would be disciplinary action of some kind. There wasn’t. “Better get on with it then,” he said.

“Sir? Get on with it?”

“You heard what she wrote. She wants you to take it down so it can be used again.”

I did what I was told. On my own this time, with the woman watching, I mimed going around the rooms, reaching up, coiling invisible wire over my arm as if coiling rope. Then I did the windows and doors. It felt like some kind of punishment and I still feel guilty about it. I suppose I shouldn’t. Because it worked.

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GROUND RULES – Cover Release!

 

Here is the final cover for my latest novel GROUND RULES.

An alternative, black & white version was described as ‘rather scary’ and ‘not colourful enough’, so I decided on this one. I hope to get a proof copy of GROUND RULES back to me by the end of January, so hopefully a paperback will be in print (and also a Kindle version) during February.

A big thanks to all those reviewers that said they liked forensic geologist Jessica (Jez) Spargo. Because of you she has a whole novel to herself!

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Headlights to Auto. Phasers to Stun*.

 

Automatic headlights are great, right? Sensors detect dusk or dullness and switch on your dipped beams. In darkness they switch to main beams, then dip again for oncoming traffic or whenever you follow red rear lights. So far so good. So why did that taxi driver glare at me? It took a while to work out. So here goes…

Dull day. Dipped beams come on automatically. Oncoming taxi indicates to turn right, across my path. It stops, waiting for me to pass. As I approach it cuts across me. We almost collide. I quietly (ha ha) curse every taxi driver in the world.
But I flashed him, didn’t I? I let him know I was happy for him to turn across my path. Well no, I didn’t. My car did.

I had passed under a low bridge. Car detected darkness. Main beams came on, then immediately off again. My car flashed the taxi driver, telling him I was happy for him to turn in front of me.
Years ago I was taught never to flash my lights at other drivers, because it is their job to decide what is safe for them to do. My car needs to be told that.

Just the very thought of driverless cars scares me silly. They do not know how to behave.

* I am no trekkie. One definition = Saying “set phasers to stun” is like modern police or military saying “check the safety on your weapon.”  (That’s what it says on Google so it must be true)

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True Tale – MUNCHIES WITH THE MAFIA?

Readers sometimes ask me where I get the ideas for my novels. Am I a people watcher? Do I do a lot of research? The answer to the first is no, not really. The answer to the second is always the same – yes, I do a lot of research. I did two years – at least – before I started to write The Man Who Played Trains. It didn’t stop there, because during the novel’s rewrites and edits I did even more, it is important to get everything right. The story is one thing; the factual parts on which it is based must be correct.

This is the third of my True Tales. Read this and the others and you will get an idea where I get my material.

For reasons you will soon understand, I won’t name names or places – except that this was San Francisco, California, in the late nineteen-eighties. I was working as a consultant to a drilling company, a firm owned by a long chain of other firms (you know the kind of thing, numerous addresses in small print along the bottom of stationery). I had no idea what these other firms did, nor did I care. Nor, thankfully, can I recall their names.

My visit was short, no more than a week. I flew into San Francisco International where I picked up a hire car reserved for me by the firm, probably the most powerful car I have ever driven. It was quite pointless in a city like SF. I had expected something much smaller.

After a couple of days in the company’s office I was stopped in a corridor by the CEO, who asked me if I would care to meet him later, for supper. It would be a small affair, he said. And it would be early, because the big boss, Mister Giovanni, did not like to eat late. Supper, for me, was something I had when I was a boy. Back then, for reasons still unknown to me, I was given a snack and drink to be consumed shortly before bedtime. What the CEO meant, of course, was dinner. He gave me the address of an Italian restaurant and suggested I meet him there. Seven o’clock, he said, and warned me not to be late. Mister Giovanni, he added, would not like that at all.

To be sure I’d find the restaurant that evening I set off mid-afternoon, heading away from the places I was getting to know (my hotel in the city, the old harbour and the tramcars). All I remember of the place was that it was in a run-down neighbourhood with not a soul to be seen. I parked up, got out of the car, and walked to an entrance little more than a door in a wall. While staring at it, with my back to the street, a woman from apparently nowhere sidled up to me. She was mid-twenties, with high heels and big-breasts – a lady of the night in broad daylight. She asked me if I needed anything. Anything at all.

I did need something, I realised. I needed to get the hell out of there. A car had drawn up across the street and its two occupants were now out of it, leaning on it Humphrey Bogart-style, staring across at me. I walked to the middle of the street. From there, but no further, I called out that I was lost. They said nothing.

That evening, wearing a pale, lightweight suit, I arrived at the restaurant at ten minutes to seven and found the door in the wall locked. I waited in the car for a while and then called my CEO. He had changed his mind, he told me. He wasn’t coming.

At exactly seven the door in the wall opened. A man dressed in black smiled at me mechanically as he ushered me in to a long narrow room that surprisingly was busy with waiters and diners. A man had come in behind me and together we followed the maître’d (or his Italian equivalent), down to the far end of what, surprisingly, was a very plush room.

Beyond a floor-to-ceiling blue velvet curtain was a private dining area as big as the restaurant space I had just walked through. A long table sat centrally. It was about the size of that in Michaelangelo’s Last Supper, except that unlike Michaelangelo’s table, this one had seats on both sides. There were seats across the far end of it too, just a short row of three. Unlike all the others in the room, these chairs had arms. I was shown to my place, five down from the top end and three up from the curtain – a definite pecking order. Being close to the exit seemed a good place to be.

The three chairs at the end of the table stayed empty. The others filled up, all but the one reserved for my CEO. At fifteen minutes past seven, three men slipped in around the velvet curtain. The first man, despite the warm California evening, wore an overcoat over his shoulders, a coat not removed by the maître d’ as might be expected but by the last of the three men to come in, a huge man dressed in working clothes and built like a brick outhouse. He hung the coat on an empty wooden coat stand in the corner of the room while the maître ‘d did that thing with the chair with the arms, pulling it right out, guiding Mister Giovanni into it and slipping it gently forwards. The third man in the group carried a leather bag that he set down by his chair. He was, I learned later, Mister Giovanni’s financial director.

What else happened? Not much. Hardly anything was said. During the meal those around me swapped niceties, including a whispered comment that Mister Giovanni wasn’t there to see us, we were there to see him. What I didn’t expect, but probably should have done, was that a number of the diners tucked huge white napkins into their collars before they tackled their several-course pasta-based meal. Oh, I almost forgot. The event was paid for at the end by the man with the leather bag, in cash. For everyone to see.

How do I remember detail like that from thirty years ago? (Seriously, would you forget something like that?) Was it Mafia? How do I know? They all seemed so very nice.

There are so many ways such real events can be turned into fiction.

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